Monday, July 7, 2014

So Long, Hope and Laughter

If you were paying close attention, you may recall that I promised to tell you about our hermit crabs, way back in February. Time to make good on my promise....

Last September, when we got Arwen, Allyson started lobbying for her own pet. When our beloved hamster Fluffy passed into glory in November, she became even more insistent. What she really wanted was a cat of her own, but I told her we'd have to get used to taking care of one before I'd be ready for two. So she tossed around several ideas: bird? guinea pig? snake? (just kidding; that was Ethan's suggestion, promptly nixed).

I was as noncommittal as possible as she pitched each option. "Yeah, maybe.... Sure, honey, one of these days."

When Christmas rolled around, she came home from Canada with a pocket full of money from Uncle Jack. She'd scarcely kissed me hello before she announced breathlessly, "I know what I want with my Christmas money! A hermit crab! Can we go today?"

"Maybe tomorrow," I hedged.

A cursory Google search told me what I needed to know: Hermit crabs are cheap, easy to take care of, and don't live that long. Yes, yes, and yes.

Allyson did an online search of her own. She'd decided to name the crab Laughter, but she thought that sounded weird, so she looked up the Spanish translation: Larisa.

"That's a weird name," Ethan said.

"Not as weird as Arwen," Allyson retorted.

"Why would you name a crab Laughter?"

"She can name her crab anything she wants," I said. "You got to name Arwen, remember? And I think Laughter is a great name."

We hit Petsmart the next day. We purchased the $20 starter kit, an $8 crab, a couple of extra shells, small bottles of salt water and fresh water, and a little bottle of food pellets. Back at home, Allyson immediately dumped the half inch of gravel into the tiny plastic cage and leaned the metal climbing rack against one side.

She gingerly transferred Larisa from her Styrofoam cup into her new home, while I took pictures, which I've inexplicably lost. [Argh!!!]

"This house looks too small for her," Allyson said, and I agreed. "How often are we supposed to feed her?" Allyson asked.

"I forgot," I answered. "Let's look it up online."

For the next two hours, we read all about the care of hermit crabs. Guess what? They aren't nearly so easy to take care of as I'd thought. And guess what else? When properly cared for--which they usually aren't--they can live up to 30 years! (I'd be in my 70s!) The reason they usually die within a month or so is that they are slowly asphyxiated outside their natural tropical environment. They can die even more quickly if the temperature falls below 70.

It turns out that the little kit all the pet stores sell is wildly inappropriate for hermit crabs. They need a much larger space, and they need high humidity because they breathe through modified gills. Their habitat (or crabitat, as crab lovers affectionately call it) needs to be between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, they need a deep substrate that they can burrow into. And that sponge that comes with the starter kit is a breeding ground for germs.

That's why, one day later, we marched back up to Petsmart and returned that $20 starter kit. We replaced it with a 10-gallon fish tank and coconut husk substrate, a mister bottle, and a realistic log for Larisa to climb on. Let's just say all of that added up to a wee bit more than Allyson's Christmas money.

But it was worth it to see my little girl's joy as she hydrated the coconut husk brick in a mop bucket and then arranged all the accessories just so. After that, she affixed several beach themed pictures to the outside of the crabitat, "to make her feel at home." [Sure wish I could show you the pictures I took that day.]

It reminded me of what she did for her ill-fated goldfish back when she was 5.

Larisa seemed very happy in her new crabitat that evening. After that, we could only guess... for two reasons: 1) Hermit crabs are nocturnal, so she only came out to eat when we were sleeping. 2) Like all hermit crabs, Larisa loves to burrow. Every now and then we could spot her pretty shell along the side of the glass. And once we got very excited when we realized she'd exchanged her original shell for one of the shells Allyson had brought home from White Rock Beach after summer vacation last year.

Beyond that, there was very little excitement. Okay, no excitement. Allyson got it in her head that what Larisa needed was a playmate. According to all that we'd read online, hermit crabs are social creatures despite their name. Maybe if we bought another crab, Larisa would come out and play.

So I forked over another $8 for Esperanza (Spanish for Hope). Hope was a bit bigger than Laughter, with a very impressive purple pincer that we were both afraid of.

Within an hour or so, we had two buried crabs that we never saw. Allyson promptly lost interest, and I was left to care for our seemingly imaginary crabs. (It reminded me of the time Bill told Ethan there was a hamster in the empty hamster cage, shortly before we bought Fluffy.)

And it was really a pain in the neck, because:
  • They didn't much care for those convenient food pellets. Instead, they preferred itty bitty chopped up bits of fresh fruits and vegetables, tiny dabs of peanut butter, bits of beans, laboriously cut-up sunflower seeds, etc. And those bits of fresh food got moldy quickly in their warm, moist crabitat.
  • Maintaining the right humidity level was a crapshoot. When it got too high, mildew was a constant problem. A bit of mildew was actually a good sign, but it had to be removed daily because it could make the crabs sick. When I removed their moldy food shell at night, I often felt I was really just feeding the mildew. If the humidity dropped, the mildew went away, but it would be only a matter of time before the crabs strangled. If the temperature got too low, they would sort of hibernate and might be in danger of dying, but if we used the heat lamp, the moisture dried up. One solution would have been to raise the temperature a few degrees for the whole house, but I wasn't willing to pay higher gas bills.
  • Their water bowls tended to get slimy, and I wasn't supposed to use soap to wash them (nor tap water, for that matter). So I rinsed and rinsed them under the tap and then tried to dry them with paper towels, which left bits of paper that were probably toxic for them.
The one advantage to taking care of them was that they were hardy little creatures who could go for many days without food and fresh water. I tried to feed them every other night, but that was hard to remember. Sometimes it was three days, or four. And the time I forgot to ask Bill to feed them when we went camping, it might have been a total of five days. Sometimes their water bowl was stone dry. But they clung to life stubbornly.

As the months passed and I continued to chop produce for these pets that we didn't see for literally weeks at a time, I became resentful. I didn't mind scooping Arwen's poop and feeding her twice a day because sometimes she'd let me pet her. But what was the point of putting food in a cage that might as well have been empty?

I complained to God about it now and then, and I suppose part of me hoped they would join Fluffy in heaven.

A couple of months back, I asked Allyson if we could give the crabs away to some true crab lovers. At first she refused, but then she realized she might be able to get a different pet. "Sure," she said.

I asked several neighbors for advice on getting rid of crabs, to which they replied that I shouldn't say that out loud. "Seriously," I said. "I'd like to put them on Craigslist, but I'm afraid to have a stranger come to our house to pick them up. And if I take their tank out some place to meet someone, what if they don't want them? That would be a big hassle."

I'd hoped one of the neighbors would take them off my hands, but for some reason after all my complaining, nobody was interested. One neighbor suggested cooking them in a soup, and I shuddered.

I continued to complain/pray about getting rid of them, but I think God knew I needed an attitude adjustment. Each time I trudged to Allyson's room at 11 PM to feed them (because I never thought of it until I was crawling into bed, and my conscience wouldn't actually let me starve them), I'd ask God to help me be a better caretaker to these innocent creatures who were entirely dependent on me.

I'd like to say I learned to love Larisa and Esperanza, but that would be a stretch. Instead, I learned to accept my duty and to serve them without (too much) complaint.

It wasn't long after that when Conrad, the big brother of Allyson's constant companion Ellie, got a hankering for hermit crabs. Allyson enthusiastically offered him the crabs and all of our supplies. He said he'd have to check with his mom. I crossed my fingers and prayed.

Within 24 hours, the crabs were gone... to a much better home where they will be loved and played with and appreciated. I have to admire Conrad and Ellie's mom, who already has two dogs, birds, and two big turtles. I guess the more, the merrier.

It was so fun to see Conrad and Ellie's joy as they set up Allyson's crab tank.
They put tin foil and a towel over the mesh lid, just like we did. 

When I ran into Conrad the next day at Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, he excitedly described their night-time antics and told me how fun it is to hold them. He's not at all afraid of the purple pincers.

And neither is Ellie:
Ellie and Lisa, a.k.a. Larisa

There, now you've seen Larisa. Now that she's no longer part of our family.

Soon you may be hearing about Allyson's next pet. She's already scheming.

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